Givology Staff's Blog

Interview with David Levine, Executive Director of the VIDA

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[b]David Levine[/b] is the founding director of [url=http://www.thevida.org/]Volunteers for International Development and Aid[/url] (VIDA), an organization that undertakes a wide variety of construction and social development projects that enrich the quality of life in many underprivileged communities worldwide. He has attained years of experience in a broad range of international projects, including ones on water quality, solar energy, infrastructure construction management, social development, and of course education; in addition to being VIDA’s overall Executive director, he has served as VIDA’s program director for the Solarize Ghana project, Ghana Orphanage program, Manpong School Project, Moskito Coast Development Program, Liberia Education and Social Development Program, and the Sierra Leone Solar Project.

[b]I read that you studied environmental engineering and policy in college. Was it your involvement in [/b][b]these issues lead you to being involved in humanitarian projects or was it something else altogether?[/b]

[b]David: [/b]Well in college I picked environmental engineering because I wanted something that would give me a chance to help people out. For the most part I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at the time. I thought with environmental engineering I could be using my technical skills to help others. During that time I got to do work with a hydrology group that would travel to Panama and Kenya. I’d do projects on water and was beginning to get involved in humanitarian service. I realized we didn’t have an Engineers without Borders, so I started a Vegas chapter. Eventually I felt like I was limited by it, since I could only apply engineering. I wanted to be able to provide a broader range of service to developing communities and that brought me to starting VIDA, where I got things started by reaching out to the teachers, lawyers, and engineers I had known from past experiences.

[b]In starting VIDA, what was the biggest lesson that you learned along the way?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]You’re only capable of doing what you have resources to complete. I remember we tried to take on this really large project called “[url=http://www.thevida.org/projects/solarize-ghana/solarize-ghana-home#.U5_EcPldWqA]Solarize Ghana[/url]”. It involves providing solar energy for schools, water purification, and transportation. It was also pretty much our annual budget and it was one project that just spread us thin. It really could have slowed all our other projects down. Don’t go full blown with a project unless you’re sure of funds. Slowly and steady growth is fine. You want to help everyone and you know you can’t, so you have to be selective.
There's also a lot of great people out there who want to help. So many teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and others want to take time out of their life to help the underprivileged.
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[b]How does VIDA go about developing local leadership in the communities it serves? How do you try to ensure that your projects are maintained within the community?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]In some cases we’ll partner with charities that have already been doing work in these communities. We partnered with DIVOG (Disaster Volunteers of Ghana) to raise money to build a school. There’s an incredible need everywhere, and it’s not hard to find giving people that want to help.
A lot of it involves learning from mistakes we’ve seen in the past. We go to the community and ask what they want and what they’re ready to maintain. Solar technology for example, might be considered uncommon but it can work well if they’re ready for it. Really, there’s an incredible need everywhere, and it’s not hard to find people that want to help. We meet with the community and the community leaders to make sure they’re ready to support and help operate the projects. If they decide that they would be a good fit, we see what the community can give to a project. For example, a lot of the communities may not be able to contribute money, but they can provide us sand, rocks, or other materials to assist with the project’s construction. When we’re in the building process, it’s important to remember it’s their school in the end, which often they’re helping build, whether through offering labor or materials. We found that these kinds of projects had a way higher success rate. The way we see it, we’re helping them do [i]their own [/i]project.
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[b]Could you tell me more about what factors are taken into consideration how VIDA chooses communities to do a project in, and the overall thought process that goes into developing one of these assistance projects?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]A lot of what I mentioned in the previous answer applies. Willingness to give support is assessed, but they’ll also get a need based assessment. In the end there’s need everywhere really. So these assessments are pretty informal; our team from VIDA and our NGO partner arrive in the village and people pull up chairs in a big circle and we explain why we are there and they explain what they need and how they are ready for partnership. I guess it is not totally informal, there is definitely a standard pattern of how we communicate and then the chief or elders respond. Sometimes we all have a ceremonial drink of palm wine. It is pretty fun and in the end we (VIDA and NGO) decide if we think we can help. If we can help then we get back to the community and let them know that we want to move forward.
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Sometimes we’ll see a community we think would benefit from a project but the head chiefs that won’t want children to go to school or insist that they’re satisfied with the way things are. I’ll be sad and it’s unfortunate, but there’s really nothing we can do about it if that’s the case. At the same time, who knows, maybe they’ll see what other communities with new schools gain from it and decide to elect a new chief. The status quo won’t change unless they decide to elect a new chief. Sometimes certain cultural barriers might be in the way.
[b]On that note, has there ever been a case where you’ll see a community flat out tell you they don’t want their girls to be going to school?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]Yeah, you’ll see it happen for quite a few reasons. One parent said they didn’t need it for their daughter because they expected to get a nice dowry from her marriage. We wouldn’t build a school where the community doesn't allow girls to attend or anything. We do what we can. Countries do have their own constitutions regarding gender disparity, and laws that need to be followed.


[b]Why did you start VIDA – what was your inspiration?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]There just wasn’t much of a community for international aid and development where I lived. I knew my life was super comfortable and easy compared to people in say, Sierra Leone. I want people to live as well as we do. I don’t think it’s fair for us to sit around in our comfy homes without trying to spread some of our resources to those who really need it.
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[b]In terms of what VIDA has done to assist with education, how do you measure the impact of your projects?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]A lot of it involves maintenance. Sometimes if you build a public school, the government provides teachers or it becomes a part of the governments’ overall system and they’ll take a large part in measuring how much help its been. We follow up. There’ll be times where we’ll try to train staff if we feel there’s been an issue in quality. There have been times where we’d also try to raise money for more scholarship programs and go back. We’ll reassess what’s going on, and see what fixes we can apply to bigger problems. If we have a school in a more rural area for example, and the teachers don’t want to leave city, we’ll add solar panels to entice them, providing electricity to help charge their laptops or something. We’ll fix or install electricity infrastructure or give help with scholarships if the students are having trouble with affording school.
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[b]What do you think makes VIDA different from other organizations aimed at social development?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]Our costs stay low with almost no overhead. We have almost no staff right now. We address any problems in country with appropriate solutions to problems. You have to build something to solve a problem. A lot of NGOs are incredibly specific with their focus; some organizations might only build schools or libraries. Our organization is very broad with our development projects, so we have people of many different fields. We’ve worked with teachers, engineers, lawyers, etc.
[b]What’s the greatest challenge that VIDA faces today?[/b]
[b]David: [/b]To keep up with the need. We do a great job on the development side, as we’ve had plenty of success in Africa with providing essentials and services. There’s another side to it though. Operating a project with the necessities is on the business side of things. Raising money and getting funds can always be an obstacle. We can be as good as possible with our efficiency, have good engineers and constructions, but if you don’t have a good grasp on business you wont have resources. Everything else is good. Whenever you have money, you can do projects and handle the business side.

[b]Five years from now, where do you envision your organization? [/b]
[b]David: [/b]We want to have our US offices and support all the things we want to support. We want to have a wide range of volunteers, volunteers who want to travel, see culture. Skilled workers, really a network of all these professions. Having an effective network really helps us better solve world problems.
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